TRIAL BY FIRE, Black Sphota Cocoon, at the Preston Bradley Center for the Arts. The incident driving Trial by Fire is almost farcical–a hairstyling session gone awry. Yet this Black Sphota Cocoon production proves to have a serious message about black women’s options, their sisterhood, and of course their relationship to their hair. Playwright Kim Crutcher introduces her audience to a contemporary single black mother who accidentally burns her child while pressing her “nappy” hair straight. An overzealous black social worker–who’s clearly opted out of the sisterhood–intervenes and separates the family despite the mother’s protestations that “every little black girl in America has had burns from the hot comb.” The social worker counters that “there’s a thin line between tradition and torture.”

Commenting on the American judicial system and its incomprehension of black women’s culture, the play also questions the North American ideal of beauty and encourages black women to derive strength from one another. This would have been enough for most playwrights. But Crutcher tosses in a couple of ghosts who offer flashbacks to 1919, then perform “good angel work.” Add surreal dream sequences and the social worker’s confusion over her interracial relationship, and the show becomes as cloudy as the protagonist’s reasoning during her feverish nightmares.

With only a few exceptions the cast is strong, and Sandee Kastrul’s staging, with choreography by Boogie McClarin, is compelling despite some missed lighting cues and delayed entrances.

–Jenn Goddu